Nakhal Fort, both elegant and defensively effective, from its pre-Islamic structural origins to the latest tower additions in 1834.
Story and photos by Travel with a Challenge editor, Alison Gardner
Oman’s ruler for the past 41 years, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos, has long declared it to be his goal to create a peaceful, inclusive modern state without neglecting “its glorious heritage, the precious evidence of its past.” His extraordinary success in achieving this balance and the financial commitment on the part of the government to make it happen has revealed to the public a collection of monumental forts and castles, a window of understanding on pre-Islamic Arabian life and times as well as life in those centuries to follow, influenced by intensive foreign trade with Europeans and other nations throughout the Indian Ocean.
After 20 years of meticulous restoration, 22 sites selected from over 500 existing forts, lookout towers and castles in Oman offer diverse glimpses of a powerful, wealthy Arabian culture living in turbulent times at the crossroads of Asia and Europe. Largely clustered in the northern one-third of the country, these often-enormous monuments of mud brick, stucco and stone showcase architectural heritage and cultural tourism at their best. An entire holiday circuit could be built around exploring these treasures.
Originally built in the 16th century, the Twin Forts guarding Old Muscat harbor helped make the capital city virtually impregnable.
A display of antique utensils in a castle’s kitchen reflect daily life of centuries past.
The dizzying heights of many Omani forts and castles and the complexity and weight of fortifications is a clear reminder that here were not nomadic herders living in tents, but some of the finest architects and engineers of their times and ours. Each castle and fort has distinctive engineering and architectural features that make it a physical challenge and an education to visit today. Be prepared for plenty of climbing up and down steps in your exploration of these enormous structures.
For example, the Nizwa Fort and its equally-impressive castle next door clearly dominate the townscape 1.5 hours drive from the capital, Muscat. The circular fort, 35 meters/115 feet high and 46 meters/151 feet in diameter, was originally built in the 17th century with walls so thick that its foundations had to be sunk into the ground an equal depth to its height to support the structural weight. Laced with seven staircases, seven interior wells, false doors, secret shafts and numerous vertical trapdoors to pour boiling oil or date syrup onto attackers, it was topped with 24 cannons and tons of cannon balls adding substantial extra weight to the upper floors of the fort. Visitors may also tour the adjacent castle which re-captures the more gracious aspects of the period’s culture, learning, and family life.
Nizwa Castle, Round Fort and Mosque.
Exquisitely decorated castle ceilings in wood tell stories in poetry.
Each defensive giant was created on the orders of tribal leaders not by a central administration or ruler. Some were built on strategic seacoasts to protect Oman’s shipping interests, others at a valuable oasis or on frankincense and myrrh trade routes. Some were built on fortifications dating back to much earlier Persian occupation or pre-Islamic times. Mirabat Fort, near Salalah in the south, holds the distinction of hosting one of the last battles in the world involving conventional attack and defence of a fortress in the mid-1970s during an “insurrection” by the pro-Communist Yemenis of the day. It was restored as a cultural heritage visitor attraction in 1991.
Spectacular on its 200 meter/656 foot high rocky perch, Nakhal’s fortress commands a 360-degree view of verdant palm plantations and the surrounding countryside north of Muscat. It is famous for its mineral springs flowing year-round from clefts in the mountain rock right around the fortress – a strategic consideration that I am sure was not lost on the architects and engineers of the time. Among its many displays is an extensive gun collection from the 18th and 19th centuries with the unique option of being able to spend two hours at a nearby firing range to shoot many of these historic relics. The cost? A mere €45 or about US$58 for an experience hard to duplicate back home!
The original structure dating from pre-Islamic times of the 3rd to 10th centuries, the present Nakhal Fort has guarded a strategic valley of date palm plantations for hundreds of years.
Preservation and restoration of traditional architecture throughout the country has created a major heritage tourism resource for both international visitors and proud Omanis to enjoy. Clearly, money has been no object when it comes to bringing a myriad of architectural treasures back to life within standards required for modern day access and in-context exhibition of period artefacts from kitchen utensils to weapons. However, foundational to this adaptive re-use, it has been an equally important goal to reflect the genuine cultural history and architectural integrity covering a variety of important Omani periods.
Whether showcasing a string of enormous complex tribal forts and castles readily accessible in the central region of the country or securing safe entry to now-deserted remote villages hundreds of years old, the Omani government seems to have the vision to appreciate that the country’s forts and castles are a non-renewable resource which requires strong initiatives to ensure long-term economic, socio-cultural and educational benefit from heritage tourism.
A traditionally-furnished castle room reflects comfort and coolness.
Open year round, entry to the forts and castles is inexpensive, about €1 or US$1.25 per adult, to encourage Omani families to enjoy their own heritage. Once inside, you may wander at your leisure or accept the services of a guide. Many of the forts and castles open to the public are described on the Oman Tourism website under the title of “Attractions”, www.omantourism.gov.om/.
Best tourism websites are: www.omanaccess.com/explore_oman/tourist_info.asp. and www.omantourism.gov.om/. The annual Muscat Festival in the capital runs for roughly a month straddling January and February, http://muscat-festival.com/, featuring regional cultures, costumes, dances, music and cuisine from around the country.
Seasons: visit Oman between October and April when temperatures are 75 to 95 F. by day and 65 F. at night [20 to 30 degrees Celsius]. Muscat is hot and humid between May and September, not recommended. The south Salalah coast is drenched by monsoon rains from June to September, keeping it surprisingly green and gorgeous in a region otherwise surrounded by sandy desert. This is the Arab visitor’s choice of time to visit Salalah, when temperatures rarely exceed 30 degrees Celsius.
Public transport: Public road transportation is small-scale and somewhat casual in timing, making it more invisible than in most countries. For very reasonable fares, modern mini-vans and taxis dash along the highways between communities or into the capital. You can go a long way on five or ten dollars in an oil-rich country!
Driving: Highway driving between towns and sites is a pleasure in Oman with well-engineered roads and all signs in English and Arabic. Traffic drives on the right. The maximum speed limit on open road is 75 miles or 120 km per hour and seat belts are compulsory. Visitors may use an international licence. Women driving in Oman is common.
In-country and international tour specialists: a catalog of operators, contact info, and tour expertise is found at www.destinationoman.com/touroperators.html. I particularly recommend Mark Tours and Car Rentals, www.mark-oman.com/welcome.htm, which includes plenty of forts and castles in its tours.
Enjoy two accompanying Oman articles in this web magazine:
Salalah: land of frankincense, monsoons and camels.
Travel Oman: a Middle Eastern haven of peace and hospitality.
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching alternative vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women travelers of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine.